Preparing the Heart: The Petals in Your Pocket

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“ZuZu’s Petals”
~Lessons from “It’s a Wonderful Life”~

Our children had to be convinced
Watching black and white holiday movies
Was worthwhile~
This old tale and its characters
Caught them up right away
From steadfast George Bailey
to evil Mr. Potter-
They resonate in our hearts.

What surprised me most
Was our sons’ response to Donna Reed’s Mary:
~where can we find one like her?
Her loyalty and love unequaled,
Never wavering…

I want to be like her for you.
When things go sour
I won’t forget what brought us together
In the first place.
I’m warmth in the middle-of-the-night storm
When you need shelter.
I’m ZuZu’s petals in your pocket
When you are trying to find your way back home.

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Preparing the Heart: Dream of the Joyous Day

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51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
1 Corinthians 15: 51-52

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It will be a joyous day of which we only dream in our current slumber.  We will be changed, awakened from our stillness and sleep– not by a mere disguising cover of snow,  but forever cleansed and purified.

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Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.
For all is hushed,
The world is sleeping,
Holy Star its vigil keeping.
Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.

Sleep, sleep, sleep,
‘Tis the eve of our Saviour’s birth.
The night is peaceful all around you,
Close your eyes,
Let sleep surround you.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
‘Tis the eve of our Saviour’s birth.

Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number,
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
~Austrian carol

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Preparing the Heart: The First Song

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“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
…while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?”
~Job 38 4a, 7

God Himself tells Job the first song was sung in celebration of the beginning of all things.  We weren’t there to hear it because we were not — yet.  A joyous celestial community of stars and angels sang as the world was pieced and sewn together bit by bit.  Man was the last stitch God made in the tapestry.

As the coda of the created world, we tend to take all this for granted as it was already here when we arrived on the scene: the soil we tread, the water we drink, the plants and creatures that are subject to us.  Yet this creation was already so worthy it warranted a glorious anthem, right from the beginning, before man.  We were not yet the inspiration for singing.

We missed the first song but we were there to hear it reprised a second time, and this time it really was about us–peace on earth, good will to men.  The shepherds, the most lowly and humble of us, those who would be surely voted least likely to witness such glory,  were chosen to hear singing from the heavens the night Christ was born.    They were flattened by it, amazed and afraid.  It drove them right off the job, out of the fields and into town to seek out what warranted such celebration.

Surely once again this song will ring out as it did in the beginning and as it did on those hills above Bethlehem.

The trumpet will sound.
In a twinkling of an eye we will all be changed.
And we will be able to sing along.
Hallelujah!
Amen and Amen.

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

Preparing the Heart: Restless and Longing

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Everlasting God,
in whom we live and move and have our being:
You have made us for yourself,
so that our hearts are restless
until they rest in you.
—Augustine of Hippo

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Advent is a time when I feel an “inconsolable longing, almost like a heartbreak”, as C.S. Lewis writes in his memoir. He describes “the stab, the pang” accompanying the experience of Joy. I feel it too, in a powerfully visceral way, within my chest, within the rhythm of my heart.The restlessness drives me to seek rest, taking me right where I belong in the still sanctuary of a manger of hay, quieted and swaddled alongside the Son of God.

 

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You have got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth,
Sleep in feathers at their birth.

(But) Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You have got a manger bed.

Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mother came to the stable,
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing.
Cows were lowing.
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You have got a manger bed.

~Appalachian Carol

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Preparing the Heart: Finding Room

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For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

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Though I’ve worked with many homeless people as a physician, I’ve never known homelessness myself.  However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.

It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.

We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.

By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.

They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.

Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.

The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.

So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.

Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. This stable and its manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened, remarkable in how unremarkable it was. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus one) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.

There is no room in our busy and “important” lives–from the moment we rise through the frenetic pace of work and home activities, there is no room for the solitude of quiet prayer and reflection, and for shared gratitude and grace.

There is no room in our schools, where all mention of religious practices outside of academic study is unwelcome and eagerly litigated.

There is no room in our city squares or buildings, where nativity scenes are banished and replaced with winter festival scenes of snowflakes and snowmen, or any symbol of religious significance is matched with a statement from the “Freedom from Religion” organizations declaring atheism as valid a faith.

There is no room in our homes where TV, computer, and social media become the altars of worship and occupy more of our time than anything else.

There is no room in our hearts and minds as we crave entertainment, sex, and drugs more than the freely offered gift of life.

Small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our beings, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

There will always be plenty of room there.

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Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
~Thomas Merton

 

Preparing the Heart: Bend Our Angers

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…the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
Romans 13:12

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Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

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Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

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photo by Nate Gibson

During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of that silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven.  No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the wrath of God.

It is not for the faint of heart.

There are times it is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

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O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

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Mt. Baker at Sunrise

Preparing the Heart: Light in Dark

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Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”

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What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

 

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Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives,
there must be wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

 

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